Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Dancing: Thoughts on the Nutcracker

We really need to end this year on a good note. Christmas is in a few days, and with luck we can put 2016 behind us and look to a new future. To do that, I'm considering the best winter story for this time of the year, to dive into a new world that promises hope in the face of darkness. 

The Nutcracker is a fairy tale by ETA Hoffmann, which later became a ballet and Western pop culture icon. Marie, a young girl, receives a strange toy soldier from her godfather Drosselmeyer. At night, mice creep out from the cracks in the wall, including their seven-headed king, and attack the nutcracker, while Marie tries to defend against magic and against how outward appearances deceive. In the ballet, seven-year old Marie becomes teenage Clara, which takes away the "ick" factor for when she later falls for the nutcracker, who turns into a boy her age that wants to marry her. 

Every winter our elementary school would take a field trip to see The Nutcracker at a local theatre, probably offered by the Miami City Ballet. I have good memories of listening to the music live, and watching the dancers. The mice mourned their fallen king with surprising pathos, while the Doll Kingdom remained ethereal and elegant. At home, I would watch our cassette of Fantasia, Disney's experimental and transcendental approach to classical music, and later on find the Russian cartoon of the Nutcracker on PBS.

I can't really explain what makes The Nutcracker appealing. The music certainly has persisted in staying with us, and with the Western world. The story, as it starts, certainly captivates us with the fairy tale lore and the hunger for adventure. In addition the dancing is memorable and soothing, a perfect remedy for a day outside of the theater.

Between the many versions, I prefer the original fairy tale the best, which has a longer story than the ballet does. The Mouse King retreats after losing to the nutcracker, and Marie falls ill in bed from cutting her arm on glass. While she lies bedridden, the Mouse King returns through a hole in the wall and extorts all of Marie's toys and candy at the threat of killing the Nutcracker. She finally decides to take action and borrow a toy sword from her little brother. The Nutcracker makes good use of it in the final confrontation.

I do recommend reading the book illustrated by Maurice Sendak, since it's got the most interesting illustrations, and he choreographed the Pacifist Northwest Ballet's interpretation. The ballet itself is a beacon of calm during the bustling holidays, and no commercialization can cheapen the music's impact on the mind. Plus, nothing is better than a girl who when shrunken and threatened, tosses a shoe at a mouse.

Merry Christmas Eve to all, and I hope you have a good Christmas Day. This year has been really weird and disappointing, but with luck we can end it on a calmer note.

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